A Tree Root Caused the Sidewalk in Front of My House to be Uneven, Am I Responsible?

31-2-3045 Shatkin v. McCarthy, N.J. Super. App. Div. (per curiam) (7 pp.)

Submitted by New Jersey Personal Injury Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

NJ Appellate Division recently decided a case in which a jogger tripped on an uneven portion of sidewalk.  Tree roots growing underneath the sidewalk caused the sidewalk to become uneven, leading to the jogger’s injuries as a result of the fall.  The jogger sued the property owner alleging a dangerous condition, namely the tree roots, caused his injury.

A New Jersey homeowner may be liable to a pedestrian who trips on a raised slab of the public sidewalk in front of his or her home, where the uneven condition was caused by roots growing from a tree on the owner’s property, but only in limited circumstances involving the owner’s affirmative conduct.  If the hazardous condition is “natural,” the property owner generally has no liability for the hazard, whereas if the condition is “artificial,” the property owner may face potential liability.  “Natural,” according to the Court, means the current owner of the property had nothing to do with planting the tree.  “Artificial” means the current owner was involved with planting the tree.

The reason for this has to do with foreseeability, which is closely connected with negligence.  If the current owner was responsible for planting the tree, he could reasonably foresee that the tree roots could grow underneath the sidewalk, causing it to become uneven.  Therefore, the owner is generally only liable when he plants the tree himself.

The Court ruled that there was no liability for negligence in this case because the property owner did not plant the tree in the thirty years he had lived there and there was no evidence suggesting that a prior owner had been responsible.  The Court ruled that the person responsible for planting the tree was merely left to speculation.

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